The Jointer: a woodworker’s best friend.
Every craft has an essential tool, the device that performs a function that no other can. In woodworking, that tool is the jointer. At least that’s what I learned after spending a few evenings on Woodworking Talk. I’ve recently come back to working with wood in a serious way, and the fates, it seems, are conspiring to keep me here for a while.
If you’re a writer who doesn’t also work with wood, here’s a quick primer. The jointer prepares a piece of wood for every other tool it may encounter until a project is complete. Running a length of wood over the jointer knife evens and straightens the edge or face of the board, which provides a perfectly level surface to reference for all other cuts to the wood.
Not so essential in carpentry or framing, though some may argue otherwise (and for the record I think they’re more right than wrong). But even if the carpenter doesn’t need a jointer, any furniture or cabinetmaker is lost in the woods without one. Novice woodworkers, you’ve been warned.
— Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson) October 13, 2012
A writer’s jointer. What is it?
If you read Writer Unboxed, Jane Friedman’s blog, or Porter Anderson’s Ether posts, you’ve likely come across the old saw (had to, sorry) that there are as many different ways of writing as there are writers. Assuming there is no universal method to the writing craft, can we at least point to a universal tool that all writer’s employ? What unassailable advice can we share with novice writers?
One miscut on a piece of expensive hardwood may cost time, money, and frustration. But how many false starts can new writers suffer before they heave their desks out the window and take up paint-by-number art, or something less likely to eviscerate their very being when it doesn’t work out quite the way they’d hoped?
My jointer: Character building
James Hetfield, singer, lyricist, and guitarist for Metallica, is famous for his line “If you don’t have a riff, you don’t have a song.” I think the same is true of characters for writing. They are the heartwood of the craft, and without them, without real flesh and blood entities reflected in your prose, you just don’t have a story.
There are arguments to be heard against character building before you begin writing. They tend to go like this:
- I don’t want to force my characters into their roles
- I want to let my characters tell me who they are.
My favorite version of this comes from Stephen King in his must read On Writing
- “I can’t think of a more boring way to write.”
Each of these points has value, sure. But just like a woodworker will consider the shape, grain, and curve of each piece in a project, and how those pieces fit together, writers need to examine the interlocking lives of their characters before setting down to write.
I’m not talking about whittling down every little scrap of protruding material and defining a character such that they cannot move from the role they’ve been cast in. That just produces flat, motionless fiction. And I can’t think of a more boring thing to read. I’m proposing, instead, that we define one face or edge, so we have a solid reference point to build from. As the story grows, the character should grow as well. Events and choices will cut away at the character’s life, leaving us with a new shape, a different view of the grain, perhaps a stain to the finish.
The No. 1 Tip of Successful Writers – bit.ly/OeFkBO
For my part, I like to begin with my characters’ motivations, a fairly common approach that you’ll find (or should find) at the beginning of any fiction writing course. Without someone who wants something, you can’t have conflict arise when that something is taken away or blocked from being had. And without conflict, you can’t have resolution (there are no problems, so what’s to resolve?). And without resolution, you end up with a sort of wibbly-wobbly mish-mash of scenes where, yes, THINGS ARE HAPPENING, but not things that really tell a story so much as they tell you how not to write a story. And yes, I’ve read a book like that.